Saint-Saëns: Violin Concertos Nos. 1-3. Fanny Clamagirand, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä conducted by Patrick Gallois. Naxos. $8.99.
Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 53 and 63, with alternative movements. Chamber Philharmonic of Bohemia conducted by Douglas Bostock. Scandinavian Classics. $7.99.
It can be particularly enjoyable to hear fine music by well-known composers when the music is outside the mainstream of their works – neglected for any one of a number of reasons. It is hard to say exactly why the three violin concertos by Camille Saint-Saëns are infrequently performed or recorded; perhaps simply because they are not at the level of the concertos of Beethoven, Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Bruch’s Concerto No. 1. But the Saint-Saëns concertos are attractive in their very lack of grandiosity, their focus on providing pleasure to listeners rather than seeking always to storm the heights and move in new directions. Fanny Clamagirand plays the concertos splendidly and without condescension – she leans into their beauties, expresses their emotions effectively and delivers thoroughly winning performances of all three. And Patrick Gallois provides a fine accompaniment with the Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä, allowing the soloist plenty of time in the foreground but complementing her very effectively when the composer wishes. There are rarely heard beauties throughout this fine CD. Concerto No. 1 (actually written second) is a compressed single-movement work, written for the young Sarasate, in which the soloist enters strongly at the beginning and remains prominent from start to finish. Concerto No. 2 (the first written) is the longest and most elaborate of the three; it is full of drama and virtuosity, with an expressive but not-too-slow second movement that is wonderfully balanced by an elegantly constructed and very effective final rondo. And Concerto No. 3 – dedicated to an older Sarasate, who at first did not think much of it – has particularly well-done contrasts between soloist and orchestra, plus a slow movement of pleasant gentleness and a finale that flows with warmth and lyricism from start to finish. There may be no “great” music here, but Saint-Saëns clearly knew how to write effectively for the violin, and this is music that pleases and entices the ear and – in Clamagirand’s performance – offers plenty of style and beauty.
In the case of Haydn, it is still surprising to realize that this preeminent Classical symphonist is still known to most listeners for only a handful of his 106 symphonies (104 with numbers and two called A and B). A very few of Haydn’s earlier symphonies will occasionally be heard, such as Nos. 6, 7 and 8, the “Morning, Noon and Night” trilogy that contains some of the most difficult solo music Haydn ever wrote, or No. 31, the “Hornsignal.” It is tempting to think that the early symphonies that do get played enjoy some level of popularity because they have fanciful titles, whether given by Haydn or others. But if this were so, symphonies such as No. 53, “L’Imperiale,” and No. 63, “La Roxelane,” would be performed more often than they in fact are. In reality, these two works are rarely played – and the way they should be played is not even certain. For these are among the works that Haydn pushed and pulled this way and that, depending on his needs for the symphonies themselves and for the theater music from which elements of these pieces are drawn. There are no fewer than four different finales for “L’Imperiale,” and “La Roxelane” has two different menuets and two different finales. What is therefore particularly pleasurable about the well-played, well-paced new recording of these symphonies by Douglas Bostock and the Chamber Philharmonic of Bohemia is that the CD includes all the variants – seven movements in all for No. 53 and six for No. 63. The fact is that there is no “right” way to play either of these symphonies, and not much of a “preferred” way, either. And all the movements fit the mood and structure of the symphonies quite well – Haydn was, after all, a supreme master of symphonic form, and even when he did not make changes for the better, he made ones equal to whatever he had constructed before. This CD is something of a curiosity (and, curiously, appears on the Scandinavian Classics label, although there is nothing the slightest bit Scandinavian about the music or the performers); but it is a most pleasant curiosity, and any Haydn lover who is curious about the many ways the composer used, reused and changed his music over time will find it fascinating to hear.